Friends at Cedar Point Pier

A pier in the small town of Coden has been a place for friendship, family and the camaraderie that comes with hooking a “big one” for nearly 80 years.

Cedar Point Pier
Cedar Point Pier. Photos by Matthew Coughlin

If you didn’t hook that sudden right turn onto the dusty road, you would never know what you were missing. On the drive from Mobile to Dauphin Island, the trees and houses recede, and the road is flanked by water on both sides. Here, the mouth of Mobile Bay meets the Mississippi Sound. Ahead is Dauphin Island, its bridge a giant wave in the distance, and beyond that lies the expansive Gulf of Mexico. Herons and cranes stand in the marshy, shallow water near the rocky banks, the shoreline so close that waves nearly lap up onto the pavement. Just before reaching the bridge, off to the right, is where you will find it. A weathered white sign with red bold letters reads, “Cedar Point Pier.”

Turning into the parking lot, you’ll see fishermen gathered, unloading their gear. They fill their carts with tackle boxes, coolers, foldable chairs, and multiple reels, then pull them up the ramp towards the wooden pier. It is s cooler here than in Mobile, with a gentle breeze coming off the water. The air smells clean and briny, with the occasional waft of fish guts and the blue crabs that are cut up to use as bait. The sounds are a cacophony of seagulls, lapping waves and, further up the pier, the laughter of a group of men.

The men, who include Cliff Davis, Brett Porter and Jonathan “J. Lo” Lough, are part of a larger community that calls itself “The Gulf Coast Reel Fishing Crew.” They support each other in both life and fishing; for them, it is the same. Will Lilley, a former night attendant at Cedar Point, explains,“People come out here to set their worries aside. They are here to enjoy the views and the water and to just be out here fishing.” 

Cedar Point Pier, located in the small fishing town of Coden, has been a staple in the Mobile Bay community since the 1940s. However, records indicate that a pier existed in the area dating back to the Civil War. During the Mobile Campaign, the Union sent several thousand troops to Cedar Point to conduct a feint to trick the Confederates into thinking the attack was coming from the south. Any Confederate troops who remained in the area retreated to the city, and the Union soldiers landed at the wooden pier unopposed. There, they encountered the remains of a fortress made of oyster shells, a unique and intriguing sight to the troops from the North. Seeing the potential use of the oysters, the soldiers loaded them into their skids and used them to furnish their own camps. 

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After the war, Coden had a short stint as a resort town. In 1899, the Mobile and Bay Shore railroad connected Mobile to the area with a 75-cent round-trip fare, which made it easier for city folk to escape to the water.

 However, in 1906, a hurricane slammed into the shores of Coden and nearby Bayou La Batre, killing up to 150 people. At the time, there was no warning system, and the residents were caught unaware. The hurricane destroyed and shuttered the restaurants and hotels that had lined the waterfront, and the tourist industry took a pause.

In 1907, a cotton broker named James Rolston, who had lost his family in the 1906 hurricane, revived the resort community by building the Rolston Hotel. It was complete with bathing houses, a pavilion with live music, upscale dining and guided fishing trips. Once again, the area was filled with fishermen, laughing children and live music. Unfortunately, in 1927, the hotel was destroyed in a fire caused by a malfunctioning fireplace. With the destruction of the hotel, the train ceased to run as frequently, and Coden returned to its original roots as a village for fishing and shrimping. 

Cedar Point Pier
Cedar Point Pier now belongs to Mobile County, but they have retained the rule that anyone from Alabama can fish from the pier without a license.

The Cedar Point Pier reflects the medium between the two worlds of tourism and fishing. The pier was a family fishing location, open to the public, where anyone and everyone could go and drop a line. No stranger to hurricanes, the pier was decimated by Hurricane Frederic in 1979, and the spot sat empty for around seven or eight years. Then, when Roland McRae met Thelma Moore, who owned the lease to the land where the pier had been, McRae convinced Moore to rebuild. The two worked in tandem to rebuild Cedar Point Pier, with McRae taking over ownership. Only three families owned the pier over the past 80-plus years. Roland McRae and his family were the final owners before Mobile county purchased it in 2021. 

For McRae, it was a family business, and his children were raised on the pier. McRae’s son, Jay, caught his first fish at the pier, and his father sectioned off a wall of fame where he posted pictures of people, many children among them, with the first fish they caught. Jay recalls seeing his brother at the age of 5, standing on a stepstool behind the counter at the bait and tackle shop, waiting on customers. The boys picked up trash and helped with any tasks that needed to be done to keep the pier running. Back then, Jay explains, the pier was less crowded, and you could fish and work at the same time. He has fond memories of fishing for flounder with his father. “Dad was someone who had no problem telling you what he thought – and what you were doing wrong. Either you were moving the line too much or not moving it enough. Then, one day I pulled in a 4-and-a-half-pound flounder. I looked up at him and said, ‘Guess I was doing it the right way this time,’” he laughs.

Left Roland McRae (left) and his son Jay McRae (right) at the pier in 2010. Photo courtesy McRae family. Right, Roland McRae and his grandson Ryan McRae celebrate with a Cedar Point cake in 1999. Photo courtesy McRae family.

Roland McRae wanted, above all else, to make the pier a place where anyone can fish, regardless of socioeconomic status. “He pushed hard to make it where the pier was licensed through the state so that people could fish without having to pay for a license. He even got it passed through the legislature. When it came time to sell the pier, I made it clear that I wanted to keep it that way,” Jay says. “That’s Dad’s legacy.” 

The guys of the Gulf Coast Reel Fishing Crew continue the family-friendly history of the pier. Many grew up fishing there with their dads, and they now bring their children along as well. Porter shows a photo of his son lying on the pier, surrounded by two fish that are as long as he is tall. “I’m working on my daughter,” he says, “but my son is already following in my footsteps.” 

The crew is made up of doctors and lawyers, construction workers and line cooks. Davis describes the type of fishing at the pier as “lazy man’s fishing.” You drop in a couple of lines and wait, which leaves plenty of time for people to get to know each other. Pier fishing friends are a diverse and welcoming group. “People who may not have come across each other in ‘real life’ are all friends out on the water,” says Jay. 

Clockwise from top left Cliff Davis, a regular at the pier and a member of the Gulf Shores Reel Fishing crew. Cutting up blue crab for bait. Former dock attendant Will Lilley casts a line. Jonathan Lough wheels his cart, loaded with all of his gear, in search of the best fishing spot.

The group enjoys basking in the glory of bringing in the big catch, but they rarely keep the fish. For them, it is all about the love of the sport. They have no problem ribbing each other and talking some good-natured smack. Despite this, Davis says, “We aren’t here to compete over who caught biggest or the best. I may have a good day out here today, but that just means your day is coming tomorrow.” 

They also share a passion for helping children or tourists who’ve never caught a large saltwater fish or even a fish at all. “I love hooking one for other people and helping them bring it in. I actually think like helping others even more than doing it for myself,” says Davis.

When the county took over ownership, it also promised the McRae family that the recreational site would remain as close to the way that they had kept it for the past 34 years as possible. The family members were getting older, and the pier was getting harder to maintain. They had already rebuilt Cedar Point twice in just five years from storms. One of their fondest recollections of their dad was the Father’s Day before he passed away from Alzheimer’s.They took McRae out to the pier, where he waved and talked to people, just as he had in his heyday.

Fathers and children. Friends and confidantes. Years pass. The tide rolls in and the tide rolls out. The pier gets knocked down and rebuilt again. Life knocks us all down, and we rebuild again. Throughout it all, Cedar Point Pier remains a place to escape, to get away from the hustle and bustle of life, to share a laugh with a friendly face, and to (fingers crossed, knock on wood) catch a flounder. A place to catch your first fish and, after a long night out on the water, as the sun rises on the horizon – your last.

While it may take years to fully master fishing these waters, Reel Fishing Crew’s Brett Porter shares his expertise on what’s biting at Cedar Point this month and how to catch it.

Speckled Trout
This month, speckled trout are moving in. I like to catch them with live shrimp under a popping cork.

You can hook these when the water is clean enough. I prefer Fishbites’ pink shrimp flavor, but you can use sandflea flavor or live sandfleas.

For flounder, I recommend live bull minnows or finger mullet. The best way to find flounder is by fishing the bottom.

Spanish Mackerel
This is another one that likes clean water. They are drawn to anything flashy or shiny, such as a spoon. 

Black Drum 
Cedar Point Pier is known for these. Black Drum can be brought in with shrimp, mullet
or crab – dead or alive. 

Jack Crevalle and Red Drum
These two have a similar bite. I’ve seen them caught on anything from cut mullet to top water plugs. Anything flashy works as well.

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